Black Boy

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Wright’s mother Character Analysis

Wright’s mother works hard to support Richard and his brother from a young age, but after her husband leaves the family, she must take on additional work in the kitchens of white families. Wright’s mother later succumbs to a series of strokes and is ill for much of Wright’s young life. At the end of the memoir, however, Wright’s mother has built up enough strength to be able to move north, to Chicago, with Wright, his brother, and Aunt Maggie.

Wright’s mother Quotes in Black Boy

The Black Boy quotes below are all either spoken by Wright’s mother or refer to Wright’s mother. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harper Perennial edition of Black Boy published in 2015.
Chapter 1 Quotes

You owe a debt you can never pay.
I’m sorry.
Being sorry can’t make that kitten live again.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Wright’s mother (speaker)
Related Symbols: The “switch”
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage describes a childhood trauma. Richard, playing with a cat, keeps his father awake with the noise, and his father begs Richard to "kill the cat" and make the noise stop. Richard is smart enough to know, even as a child, that his father is speaking metaphorically, but a part of Richard wants to get back at his father, so he follows his "orders" and really does kill the cat. Richard's father then makes Richard bury the cat and arrange a "funeral" for it.

His comments afterward to his son, that the cat's death is a "debt" that cannot be "repaid," haunts Richard. He fears precisely this - that he, as a young man, will do things for which he can never atone. And so Richard, for one thing, does not want to go near cats for the rest of his childhood. And, more broadly, Richard associates with his family ideas of terror, detachment, and violence that cannot be undone. 

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Chapter 2 Quotes

Mama, is Granny white?
If you’ve got eyes, you can see what color she is.
I mean, do the white folks think she’s white?
Why don’t you ask the white folks that?
But you know.
Why should I know? I’m not white.
Granny looks white. Then why is she living with us colored folks?
Don’t you want Granny to live with us?

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Wright’s mother (speaker), Granny
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In this heartbreaking section, Richard begins to learn what "race" really means in the context in which he lives, and the role it will play in his life. Richard notes that his Granny's skin is lighter than his, and he asks, therefore, if Granny is white. But his mother notes that his Granny will be called "black," just as he will be called "black," even though their ancestry is a mixture of African, European, and Native American families. Richard begins to see that the color of the skin itself is not "important" to those living in the racist South, so much as the distinctions that come with this racial separation. In other words, Richard, through his mother, learns that he is "black" because society says that he is "black," and that society will treat him unfairly, often violently, as a black man regardless of what he says to them. 

Why are there so many black men wearing stripes?
It’s because . . . Well, they’re harder on black people.

Related Characters: Richard Wright (speaker), Wright’s mother (speaker)
Related Symbols: The “switch”
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard's mother notes, without equivocating in any way, that it is simply more difficult to be a black man than to be a white man in the American South - and of course the events of the memoir up till this point reinforce that assertion. Richard begins to understand, after Hoskins' death, that the world is deeply unfair to African Americans, especially in the South, where black men and women are presumed to be criminal, and where that "criminality" is punished by the state far more harshly than any overt criminality in white populations.

But at this stage, Richard is still making sense of this information - it is not reasonable, after all, that black men should be punished simply because of the color of their skin. Richard's innocence, which gradually gives way to a hardened understanding of what black men must do to survive in the South, is one of the great tragedies of the memoir - the way that he understands what it means to be a "black boy" becoming a black man in America. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

Son, you ought to be more serious. You’re growing up now and you won’t be able to get jobs if you let people think that you’re weak-minded. Suppose the superintendent of schools would ask you to teach here in Jackson, and he found out that you had been writing stories?

Related Characters: Wright’s mother (speaker), Richard Wright
Related Symbols: Books and Novels
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

As Richard grows older, he works in manual labor to continue to make money to attend school and buy books. At this point, some in his family, like his mother, tell him that it might be possible for him to get a job teaching - but only if he gives up the writing of stories, which many in the family consider a worthless and wasteful occupation, something that only the "soft-minded" or degenerate might do. After all, his family members contend, what does it mean to make up the events of a story? Anyone could make up anything - stories therefore have no value to anyone, and there is no purpose in reading or in writing them.

Of course, Richard understands that stories can be a gateway to another way of life, and he reads partly so that he might hone his craft of writing. Thus the overwhelming feeling on the part of his family members that writing is bad for him, and bad for his future, does not deter Richard from continuing to read and write. 

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Wright’s mother Character Timeline in Black Boy

The timeline below shows where the character Wright’s mother appears in Black Boy. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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...book’s author and narrator—and his unnamed brother sit quietly in their house in Mississippi. Their mother informs them that they must stay quiet, because their grandmother (their father’s mother) is dying.... (full context)
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...tugging at him, and his father pulls Richard from out of his hiding place. Richard’s mother and father seem relieved, at first, that Richard is OK, and tell Richard that their... (full context)
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Richard’s brother is horrified by Richard’s actions, and Richard’s mother chastises him, saying that it was a sin to kill the cat, and that Richard... (full context)
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...there is no food in the house. At first, when he tells this to his mother, she laughs and says he should catch a “kungry” if he’s hungry—an imaginary beast that... (full context)
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His mother begins sending Richard out to buy groceries, and a pack of young boys in the... (full context)
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Richard’s mother begins working as a cook for a white family, and Richard—who is forced to watch... (full context)
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One day, Richard’s mother orders coal for the house and tells Richard to wait for the delivery man to... (full context)
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...this age—around six—Richard also learns of the hatred between “white” and “black” people from his mother. Richard is at first confused, since his Granny (his mother’s mother) has very light skin... (full context)
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Richard’s mother scrapes together money to send Richard to school—she must buy him a uniform so he... (full context)
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Richard’s mother becomes more observantly religious after his father leaves, and she invites the preacher from the... (full context)
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Richard goes to court, with his brother and mother, as his mother attempts to argue before a judge that Richard’s father should pay child... (full context)
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...takes Richard back to the orphanage, where he is lashed by Miss Simon. When his mother next visits, she tells Richard that he must remain in the orphanage and be a... (full context)
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His mother agrees to take Richard out of the orphanage if he will go to his father... (full context)
Chapter 2
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Richard’s mother comes back to Richard—who has not yet left the orphanage, since his mother still cannot... (full context)
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Richard’s mother and the two boys stop in Jackson to see Granny, who lives in a relatively... (full context)
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Richard’s mother falls ill again and remains in her bed. One night, when Granny is bathing Richard... (full context)
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...the more peaceful moments he and his brother enjoy with Grandpa and Granny. But Richard’s mother soon takes Richard and his brother aboard a train to Arkansas, where they will live... (full context)
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Richard asks if he is black, and his mother says that society will view him as “colored,” but that Richard’s ancestry is really a... (full context)
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Richard, his brother, and his mother move in with his Aunt Maggie—his mother’s sister—and her husband, Uncle Hoskins. The house in... (full context)
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...although Maggie wishes to go down to the bar to find out what happened, Richard’s mother urges her to stay home. Because Hoskins was killed extra-legally, and because the white authorities... (full context)
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But after some time, Richard’s mother decides that Granny’s strict religious rules in the house are too much to bear, and... (full context)
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...and carries him back home, then launches into a tirade when Aunt Maggie and Richard’s mother return from their jobs (they are once again cooking for white families in the area).... (full context)
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...as he only visits Richard’s house at night, and when Richard asks his aunt and mother about this, they reply that Matthews is on the run from white people who wish... (full context)
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One night, Matthews enters the house in a hurry, and tells Maggie and Richard’s mother, with Richard overhearing from his bedroom that he (Matthews) has set fire to a house... (full context)
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...and takes his dog home. The dog is later crushed by a car, and his mother calls Richard a “fool” for not taking the money—as now the family has no money... (full context)
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Richard’s mother finds a new job as an assistant to a white doctor, and her wages are... (full context)
Chapter 3
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...Richard is hit in the head with a rock, and when he later shows his mother what has happened, she beats him, saying that white boys could kill Richard in a... (full context)
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One day, Richard’s brother calls him in to his mother’s bedroom, and the two boys discover that their mother is paralyzed on her left side,... (full context)
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...his insolence, Richard begs again to be sent back to Jackson, to Granny and his mother, and Clark finally agrees to do so. By the end of the week, Richard is... (full context)
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After returning to be with his mother, Richard realizes that her series of operations and treatments will leave her mostly sick for... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Richard recognizes that, as he is now an “uninvited dependent” in Granny’s home—since his mother is no longer earning money, but rather lying in her bed, and since Richard’s brother... (full context)
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...she tries to beat him, since he has done nothing to deserve punishment. Granny, Richard’s mother, and Grandpa finally persuade Richard to put down the knife, but Granny and Grandpa call... (full context)
Chapter 5
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...converting Richard to Christianity, and Richard settles into an uneasy truce with them, as his mother recovers enough at least to encourage Richard in his studies from her bed. Richard enrolls... (full context)
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One summer day, Richard is sitting on the porch steps with Granny, Addie, and mother—Granny and Addie are arguing about “religious doctrine,” as they often do, and Richard is mostly... (full context)
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...altogether, Granny relents, and Richard is permitted to work on Saturdays. When Richard tells his mother this, she is proud of him for standing up to Granny and Addie. (full context)
Chapter 6
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Richard’s mother again begins to recover from her stroke-induced paralysis, and begins going to a Methodist church... (full context)
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Richard’s mother does so, and begins weeping and praying for Richard, begging him to accept Christ and... (full context)
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In the summer after seventh grade Richard's mother again falls ill. To bring in extra money and help around the house, Granny and... (full context)
Chapter 10
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...is leaving town, for Memphis, and that he won’t be returning any time soon. His mother worries that he is leaving to avoid some crime he has committed, and Richard does... (full context)
Chapter 13
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Richard’s brother, who has been living in Jackson with their mother, comes up to Memphis with her to join Richard, and the three move into a... (full context)
Chapter 14
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Aunt Maggie also moves to Memphis, as she is looking for work. Maggie, Richard's mother and brother, and Richard all decide simply to leave for Chicago as soon as possible,... (full context)